When was the last time you saw the stars? If you live in a heavily populated area, chances are it was a really clear night and all you saw was a muted speckling of lights across the heavens. To Sriram Murali, that’s a travesty.
When he showed his friends and colleagues a time lapse he had made of the night sky, they thought it was the work of Photoshop.
Murali is an analyst at Google who’s also a serious amateur astrophotographer. Last year, when he showed his friends and colleagues a time lapse he had made of the night sky, they thought it was the work of Photoshop. He decided to prove them wrong by showing just how much of the night sky most of us miss. To do so, he spent three months making another time lapse—this one capturing the night sky at specific levels of light pollution, as defined by the Bortle Dark Sky Scale—a scientific standard for rating light pollution.
Murali chose nine locations across California and Oregon using the website Dark Site Finder, which lists a location’s amount of light pollution. The difference is shocking. The farther Murali moved from the city, the less light pollution, and the more brilliant the skies became. The most remote location on his list, with no light pollution at all, was the Eureka Dunes in Death Valley. It took him and his wife 12 hours to get there, with the last two hours being on backcountry dirt roads. They didn’t see another person for the last 50 miles. It was the most difficult part of the project, he says.
“Despite all this, I had never seen anything like it, and I’ve been to many dark sites. It was so dark I was able to walk at night without any light,” Murali says. “It’s beyond imagination. The Milky Way was so bright that it cast shadows.”
Besides limiting observation of the night sky, light pollution can disrupt ecosystems and have adverse health effects. Luckily, scientists say that it’s one environmental problem that could have an easy fix, including turning off lights and using shields on street lights to direct their glow downward.
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